Research and development aimed at producing drought-resistant crop varieties is another direction recommended by agricultural scientists. But so far, it’s all pie in the sky.An Indian farmer looks skyward as he sits in his field with wheat crop that was damaged in unseasonal rains and hailstorm at Darbeeji village, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, Friday, March 20, 2015. Recent rainfall over large parts of northwest and central India has caused widespread damage to standing crops.
Indian agrarian economy has witnessed so many twists and turns during the previous year. Farmer’s protest and a poor position in global hunger index had grabbed the attention of everyone in the nation. It is an effort to understand different views and one should try to find the root cause of entire agrarian distress.
As many as 78 per cent of the world’s poor rely on agriculture for food and livelihoods. Women, who comprise 43 per cent of the developing country workforce in agriculture, are key to agricultural development and economic growth. However, they lack access to critical resources. Globally, more than 800 million people remain acutely or chronically undernourished. Two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, and another two billion are overweight or obese. Yield increases of staple crops have flat lined, and with the population projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, one billion or more may face starvation. Global hunger index has reflected an image of India, which made all the successive ruling regimes as the axis of evil. This actually is a global phenomenon.
Former world bank economist & the current MS Swaminathan award winner Uma Lele shows her concern when she says, “Agriculture contributed 17.4 per cent of GDP but provided 47.3 per cent of employment in 2015-16”, she continues with her discomfort with the way Indian elite or policymakers seem not to accept that we are malnourished. According to Lele, ’there is massive poverty and undernourishment in rural areas’. As the second largest country, it is no wonder that India contains the world’s largest number of hungry, euphemistically called undernourished.
It is the issue when PM eyes for doubling farmers’ income by 2022 and ministry of food processing is working for a better cold chain facility. India has around 30 per cent of the population for poor people (below poverty lines). It is also identified by OECD outlook that India produces sufficient to feed a part of the world population, along with China and other developing Asian agrarian economies. Challenge is getting hard every day with rising population and feeding a huge population requires complex policy frameworks across the globe, says Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It says “Sound policies, robust institutions, and well-functioning markets complement new discoveries of agricultural science to create dynamic and resilient food systems. The combination of strong agricultural science and good policy is especially important in poor rural areas, where many people depend on farming for their livelihoods”.
On the one hand, agronomists like Ashok Gulati feels not very much sure about policy frameworks and how they will lead to withholding sustainability of the current agrarian growth of India (higher yields+ farm market linkage+ better remunerative prices). Uma lele had been a critic to what Niti Aayog member Ramesh Chand say. Ramesh Chand expressed his views like a long list of public policy obstacles in the way of doubling farmer income—poor state of science and technology, inefficient and exploitative markets and non-viability of small farms despite their high unit productivity. Yet Chand stresses the importance of linking innovation to supply of inputs, and the key role of startups while also pointing out that private sector share is only 2 per cent of annual investment in agriculture sector, public sector 18.6 per cent and farmers’ share remaining 79.4 per cent, perhaps justifiably concluding that most of the 28 Indian states will not fix these problems.
Former Union Minister Yogendra Alagh earlier said it seems more critical to the way economists come to different projections for similar issues. As an economist he finds illiteracy or lack of quality training in the core of the entire agrarian distress. He has made a great observation as most developing states of India lacks in quality education infrastructure. The year ahead will prove to be tough for policy makers. Feeding undernourished along with eyeing to get closer to the vision of doubling farmers’ income. Experts believe that FY 2018-19 budget can be a landmark in terms of agrarian policies. The questions though remain same! Money can’t bridge policy gaps. Distress needs fundamental changes to be tackled and above all the stakeholders have to rise above fighting for a brighter well fed & Green future.
Buried deep within the statistics and analytics of the Economic Survey 2017-18 is a Malthusian nightmare, of a population growing as its food supply shrinks. The self-sufficiency of the present is precarious, as Indian agriculture faces what appear to be insurmountable challenges: water stress, soil degradation and climate change.
At first glance, all this seems rather far-fetched. In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, food has never been so relatively cheap. Consider the fact that middle-income groups in India spend a little over one-fifth of their total earnings on food. For readers of this journal, the figure is probably closer to one-tenth.
In fact, in recent years, farmers have faced a problem of over-production. In the wake of bumper harvests, cultivators have been leaving their produce by the roadside, because it wasn’t worth their while to take it to the mandi. At 20 paise a kilo for potatoes, or Re 1 for tomatoes and onions – a fraction of the production cost – farmers are in deep distress.
Across large parts of the country – in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh – farmers were not able to recover costs of production, as market prices fell below Minimum Support Prices (MSP). So, rather than doubling farm incomes, already at an abysmally low level (estimates vary from Rs 1,600 to Rs 6,426 per household per month), we are looking at a scenario where they fall.
In the midst of this, the Economic Survey raises the red flag of climate change, by telling us that it will impact farm incomes by as much as 25 per cent. Productivity will fall, because of water stress. The first impact will be felt by rain-dependent farmers who have no access to irrigation or drought-proofing technologies (they also do not have access to markets, guaranteed procurement and post-harvest infrastructure like cold storage or food processing units). Currently, 52 per cent of India’s net sown area is unirrigated.
To insulate these farmers, we must improve productivity and control price and income volatility. How? The ‘price deficiency payment’ scheme adopted by some state governments provides farmers some measure of insulation from market fluctuations, but does not address the productivity issue. Economists insist that people must move out of agriculture, which accounts for 16 per cent of GDP but 49 per cent of employment. Move them where? Currently, there are no answers to that question.
Eventually, even highly productive agriculture based on irrigation and technology and supported by subsidies, will feel the impact of climate change, i.e. water stress. So, despite the absence of clear-cut solutions, the Economic Survey’s categorical emphasis on water scarcity will be useful in shaping policy.
Consider the cost of our agricultural productivity. India pumps out more than twice as much groundwater as China and the US. The result is a critical depletion of groundwater. At the same time, surface water sources – lakes, ponds, tanks and small rivers – are drying up or getting so polluted as to be unusable.
In the long term, we will not be able to outrun the impact of climate change. Water scarcity will hit Indian agriculture and industry and hit them hard. In this scenario, agricultural productivity will suffer and food imports will become necessary. That’s where the Malthusian nightmare starts.
The only way out is water conservation, by adopting a disciplined approach to water use like drip irrigation, etc. As a first step, power subsidies which lead to indiscriminate pumping of groundwater, need to be reviewed. But, as the Economic Survey acknowledges, agriculture is the preserve of the state governments. Which incumbent government will risk electoral defeat by cutting power subsidies to the farm sector?
Research and development aimed at producing drought-resistant crop varieties is another direction recommended by agricultural scientists. But so far, it’s all pie in the sky. Drought-resistant farmers’ varieties existed for millennia, until they were replaced by green revolution hybrids. Now, we will have to reinvent the wheel.
A drop in farm productivity and incomes would have far-reaching social, political and economic consequences. Food prices would escalate, and medium and small farmers with limited access to capital and a large debt-burden would suffer disproportionately. This would fuel political unrest on a scale we haven’t seen in recent decades. Already, 2017 can go down in history as the year of farmers’ agitations. Starting with Madhya Pradesh, where five farmers died in police firing, the unrest manifested in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharstra, Odisha, etc. Insurgent groups might take advantage of agrarian distress to expand their activities.
Climate change is notoriously difficult to quantify and its impacts are spread over such a long period that addressing them becomes a low priority. What is clear is that we can no longer take the farm sector and our comfortable food stocks for granted.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.